Last Wednesday evening, DVGRR participated in the Ephrata Fair Parade, a huge local event that turned out to be great fun and great exposure for our rescue. We drove our float to the parade starting point ahead of time, then put the finishing touches on our decorations, lighting, etc.
Lots of parade spectators were starting to make their way to the viewing areas and passing by us as we worked; many stopped to chat or admire the three dogs selected to ride on our float representing DVGRR. The dogs took it all in stride, but one mom left me kind of shaking my head in frustration at her actions.
This enthusiastic woman came up carrying her young son, who I would estimate to be somewhere between 18 months and 2 years old. She plunked her son down right in front of 11-year-old Bentley, an adopted Golden belonging to Kennel Manager Dennis Stauffer and his family. The child’s nose was no more than half an inch from Bentley’s nose, given their respective heights. Bentley began licking the child’s face, which clearly the little boy had not anticipated. He wrinkled up his forehead and turned his head away, backing up towards his mother. Bentley, who loves everyone, followed happily, tongue still blithely outstretched in greeting. It took another few minutes before the mom seemed to realize her son wasn’t really digging the licking and she picked him up out of Bentley’s reach.
I must admit, I was among those of us who chuckled at the scenario – after all, it was comical in a sweet way to see Bentley trying to make a new friend. But at the same time, I was quite disheartened at this mother’s apparent lack of knowledge regarding how to introduce children and dogs. In my opinion, she made two key errors in judgment:
- She never asked if her child could meet Bentley; she literally walked up and stuck him into Bentley’s face of her own accord. At least four of us were standing right there and could have let her know if it was advisable to introduce them. Bentley is a Golden who lives with a young child, has a fabulous temperament and gets along well with everyone – but not every dog fits that same description, of course. With a different, less tolerant dog, the outcome could have been disastrous.
- She didn’t consider that her child might not want to meet Bentley, at least not in such an up-close manner. I hope the little boy won’t take away any negative reaction to dogs, and most likely he won’t, given that Bentley was gentle and loving (albeit a bit direct in his greeting). But I’m willing to bet the child won’t be thrilled about meeting the next dog he encounters, wondering if that sloppy tongue bath will be repeated.
At one time in my life, I carried the same implicit trust that this mother does, especially since my first Golden (raised from a puppy) absolutely adored children and could never get enough of those she met on walks or visits to friends. So I do understand the mindset of “what could go wrong?” When you work in rescue (or any other dog-related profession), however, your perspective changes quite a bit. Granted, I’m also particularly sensitive to the need for caution, since my current Golden (Alli) and her immediate predecessor (Morgan) both came with what might be called “checkered histories” regarding their past interaction with children. I’m therefore extra careful whenever we encounter kids while out and about.
On the positive side, the majority of children I personally run into on walks now know to ask, “Can I pet your dog?” – as compared to maybe ten or fifteen years ago when that question was much less often posed. I believe parents and educators are doing a good job of teaching children to be respectful of dogs and other animals, but certainly the road ahead still has some bumps and pitfalls.
One of the key skills in this area, for both adults and children, is recognizing when a dog is comfortable versus when a dog is experiencing stress or anxiety. Some signals given off by dogs are pretty obvious – a growl or a snarl is generally not hard to misinterpret. But dogs communicate with many other subtle signals that can take experience and practice to pick up on.
For example, one that is quite easy to see once you know what to look for is a closed mouth versus an open mouth. That open-mouth, “smiling” look is characteristic of a dog that is relaxed and happy, while a tightly closed mouth indicates a dog that is feeling nervous or uncomfortable. In many situations, an observant person will catch the precise moment where a dog closes its mouth in response to some stimulus in its environment (an unfamiliar person, a threatening dog, etc.). Often, that action (i.e., closing the mouth) calls for some intervention on the part of the humans to reduce the tension and avoid the dog moving on to a growl, snarl, or snap.
A resource that I love for helping people ensure that children have good experiences with dogs (and vice versa) is Living With Kids and Dogs, a website run by noted dog trainer/author Colleen Pelar. I’ve read several of Colleen’s books and heard her speak at a conference and I can tell you that she’s incredibly practical, knowledgeable, and funny as well! I highly recommend her book of the same name as her site, Living with Kids and Dogs…Without Losing Your Mind, available in paperback or downloadable e-book formats.
Colleen’s site also has a very nice, 3-step guide for parents to help teach their kids the best way to meet a dog. Similar information is of course available elsewhere, but I really like Colleen’s approach of asking the dog, as well as the owner – a step that I know I would have never thought to include myself if not for this advice!
Another great resource from Living With Kids and Dogs is the Dog Behavior Continuum, which very succinctly and clearly shows how a dog’s attitude ranges from liking an activity or experience (Enjoyment), to merely putting up with it (Tolerance), to really wanting to be somewhere else (Enough Already). I really encourage you to spend time looking at some of the pictures on Colleen’s site that illustrate these different stages as well as reading some of her excellent articles. Learning to “read” a dog’s reaction to children (as well as other aspects of his or her environment) is a process that can be as fascinating as it is important.
In closing, I wanted to share this sweet photo of Shirley (11-197), a wonderful senior Golden who was adopted last November by Tim and Kathy Reeves. A real “character,” Shirley was adored by Tim and Kathy’s grandchildren and she never tired of being included in their playtime. In this picture, despite the semi-indignity of wearing a toy for a hat, Shirley bears that open-mouth, relaxed expression that says she falls into the “Enjoyment” realm of the Dog Behavior Continuum.
Tim says he thinks the green toy is really a halo, as the day after this picture was taken, Shirley’s many health issues got the better of her and she left for Rainbow Bridge, tucked into Tim’s lap as she said goodbye. She’ll be dearly missed, but she made the most of every moment she spent in her adoptive home!